The dispute over the validity of the November 2021 referendum canceling Central Maine Power’s line to Canada — intended to bring Hydro Quebec power to Massachusetts through Maine — drags on.

Unless current court schedules are accelerated — unlikely — it will be at least another year before we know whether the line can be built.

By then, Mainers will have voted on at least one, perhaps two referendum questions that are in large part spinoffs from CMP’s dismal public standing, and its tortuous proposal to carry electrons from Quebec to the Bay State; initiated questions for 2023 aren’t due until January.

One question, known as Pine Tree Power, aka “Our Power,” is virtually certain to appear. It would pledge Maine ratepayers to buy the assets of the two privately owned utilities, CMP and Versant, the former Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service.

Versant hasn’t publicized buyout costs, but CMP says its are $13.5 billion — which, as I’ve pointed out before, is far more than all debt now held by the state of Maine. It’s a lot to spend on a solution that wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem.

“Our Power” would convert these huge companies, by Maine standards, into a statewide cooperative with a seven-member elected governing board, separate from state government. Figuring out how this would actually work — there’s nothing like it elsewhere — can provoke queasiness.

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Is there a better way? There may be, starting with a focus on what we’re buying.

Two 1997 laws established rate “deregulation” and forced utilities to sell their generating assets; CMP chose Florida Power & Light, now operating as NextEra, a major player in Maine markets. CMP and Versant are now only “wires companies,” devoted to transmission and distribution.

Making huge expenditures for wires may not be the best use of inherently scarce public funds.

Let’s face it: Maine’s highly ambitious goals for converting from fossil fuels to renewables depends on generating, or importing, vastly more power than we use today, perhaps two or three times as much.

To do that, we need lots of new sources, and the current method — Public Utilities Commission requests for proposals, or RFPs, to private, profit-making companies — is far from fool-proof.

What we get depends on who bids and what they’re bidding on. There’s no comprehensive state plan to guide the PUC, and investments are being made entirely by private companies.

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There’s been broad support over the decades for a Maine Public Power Authority. It’s time to dust off the plans and see if they could help us tackle the climate crisis.

The best part is that the state could start small and build up, proposing, and acquiring, new solar, wind and any other cost-effective, non-fossil fuel sources.

If Maine owned power generation on a scale similar to states such as New York and Washington, there’d be little point in buying CMP and Versant assets. It could direct where lines are built while beefing up regulation, as is now being attempted.

Unlike the Our Power buyout, there’s a clear model. It’s Hydro Quebec — the implicit target of the 2021 referendum, and impetus for another potential 2023 question that would ban “foreign” contributions to referendum campaigns, even when it’s the “foreigner’s” project that’s being canceled.

Hydro Quebec is much misunderstood in Maine, except perhaps in neighboring Aroostook County — the only county to vote “no” in 2021. In many ways, it’s everything CMP’s many critics claim to want.

An arm of Quebec’s provincial government, it’s subject to public control via the voters. A source of pride north of the border, its was built from humble beginnings because the early private utilities — like their American counterparts — didn’t want to extend service to rural areas.

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There are key differences, of course. Hydro Quebec, as its name implies, has a portfolio almost 100% hydroelectric, principally the James Bay dams completed in the early 1990s. Nobody’s planning major new dams on this continent, though it would be nice to have CMP’s dams back; new sources of electricity would be quite different.

Yet the scale of the challenge, and the prospect of shoveling enormous amounts of ratepayer money into the private sector should give us pause. Price is also an issue, and with rates already at the previously unthinkable 22 cents a kilowatt hour, it’s not going away.

Nothing like this has been even attempted in Maine since the long-ago Curtis administration (1967-75.) Yet it’s time to start thinking big again, since our very lives may depend on it.

If we’ve been looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope, as I believe we have, it’s not a moment too soon to begin a new, and more productive, discussion.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at: [email protected]

 

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